“I want to be a marine biologist,” Noah told Graeber, who then quickly encouraged the young man to follow his passion.
That kind of talk is music to Graeber’s ears.
Graeber visited Piedmont Middle School as part of a three-day traveling marine science class the lab operates each year with funding from the Shell Oil Company, Graeber said. The visit started Tuesday at Piedmont Elementary School and will end today at Piedmont High.
The program is meant to educate students about Alabama’s varied marine life and to encourage students like to pursue their interests in science, a field rife with opportunities, Graeber said, as the numbers of students interested have continued to fall in recent decades.
In 2000-01, 13 percent of Alabama college graduates earned degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or STEM, fields, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In 2008-09 just 11 percent of college graduates earned such degrees.
Alabama’s percentage of STEM graduates does rank slightly higher than the national average. In 2000-01 just 12.4 percent of graduates earned STEM degrees. That number fell to 10.7 percent in 2008-09, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Last year, Graeber and six of his fellow educators at the lab taught about 8,000 Alabama schoolchildren about marine life through the traveling program.
In Piedmont on Wednesday, preserved specimens caught by the lab, mostly in Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, were placed on tables in Chad Harper’s science classroom at the middle school. Students walked among the sponges and hammerhead sharks and squid, daring themselves, and others, to pick them up. A card on each table read “Please touch” to make perfectly clear the experience was meant to be tactile.
“For a lot of people that are landlocked, (these animals) are kind of alien,” Graeber said.
“Alabama has a rich, diverse natural world, and most people don’t realize just how diverse it is,” Graeber said. “Our coastline is so small that if you ask people from other parts of America, a lot of people don’t even realize that Alabama is on the coast.”
Programs like the Bay Mobile help show that diversity of Alabama life that “stretches all the way from Piedmont down through the rivers, creeks and streams of Alabama and flows out into Mobile Bay,’ Graeber said.
But some of the state’s most precious nursery grounds for shrimp, crab and oysters have been threatened in recent years, Graeber said. The lab is currently studying the effect on Alabama’s coast from the BP oil disaster, when the company’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded April 20, 2010, killing 11 men and dumping what the U.S. government’s special committee on the spill put at 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
“The oil spill is still a topic, and it will be a topic for kids two generations out,” Graeber said. But ecologically, currently the state looks good, he said. “I haven’t seen a tar ball, or any oil, on the beach walks with my students in about 14 months, and we’re out there a lot. Daily.”
Rachael Smith, a biology teacher at Piedmont High School, said she hopes the program will help her students recognize how diverse Alabama’s natural world is, and that “You don’t have to travel to the rain forest to see that,” Smith said.
During his presentation to Harper’s science class, Graeber gave the kids all sorts of facts about sea life, but some didn’t need any convincing that marine life is interesting. After Graeber’s presentation, an enthusiastic Noah Maddox exclaimed that “The whole time he was talking, I was just like, ‘Wow.’”
Star staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @burkhalter_star.